Is China Making Its Bird-Flu Outbreak Worse?

– Scary stuff.  here’s a quote from within this story:

 Dr. Lo Wing-Lok, an adviser to the Hong Kong government on communicable diseases, said the mainland had not been forthright about the spread of bird flu in poultry. “There’s no doubt of an outbreak of bird flu in China, though the government hasn’t admitted it,” he told Bloomberg.

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One thing is certain about avian influenza: it’s deadly. All three people who contracted the H5N1 strain of the virus in China last year died. In the first six weeks of 2009, eight people have come down with bird flu, and five have died. Another thing is that while the disease has yet to go pandemic, as many doctors fear it could, it remains worrisomely persistent. Every year since 2003, about 100 people in Asia, the Middle East and Africa contract the disease. Last year, in a rare exception, the number dropped below 50.

But bird flu, it seems, is back. Last month’s five deaths — one of the highest tallies of bird-flu deaths China has ever recorded in a month — were in locations as far removed from one another as Beijing in the north, Xinjiang in the west, Guangxi in the south, Hunan in the center and Shandong in the east. “From a disease-control perspective, the increase in cases in China is notable, as is the wide geographic spread,” says Dr. Hans Troedsson, the World Health Organization’s representative in China. There is still no evidence that the virus has mutated to spread easily between humans, he says. But while such a nightmare scenario, which could set off a global flu pandemic that could kill millions, has shown no signs of being an immediate threat, serious concerns remain. “The fact that this is the highest number for a single month in China reminds us that the virus is entrenched and circulating in the environment,” Troedsson says. (See pictures of the resurgence of bird flu.)

On Feb. 10, authorities in the far-Western region of Xinjiang culled more than 13,000 chickens in the city of Hotan after 519 died in a bird-flu outbreak. But until this week, China had reported no widespread outbreaks of the virus among bird populations, prompting concerns among some public-health experts that mainland health and veterinary authorities could be missing — or even concealing — the spread of the disease through poultry and wild birds. Hong Kong, where the first human cases of H5N1 infection were found in 1997, reported finding a dozen birds with the deadly strain of the virus earlier this year — a strong indication that the virus is very likely present in adjacent Guangdong province. But so far, Guangdong has reported no bird cases. Equally unusual is that after such a busy month of infections in China, reports of human cases have gone silent. “It’s a surprise for me, since in January, the human cases, you have so many, but in February it suddenly stops,” says Dr. Guan Yi, a virologist from the University of Hong Kong. (Read “Is Hong Kong’s Bird-Flu Vaccine Failing?”)

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